Public Engagement

Understanding the effects of bilingualism in children


Dr Joanna Clifton-Sprigg (Lecturer, Department of Economics) received £1350 to share her research about bilingualism in children with both parents and the Scottish government and in doing so, learned more about their experiences. 


As British society becomes more diverse, the number of families that speak a language other than English is increasing. The children in these families often speak two languages whilst growing up – English and the language of either one or both of their parents. There is a widespread perception that these bilingual children in the UK lag behind their monolingual peers during education as they are not solely focused on learning English. However, research shows that this is not the case.

Joanna analysed the data from the Growing Up in Scotland study. She compared the skills of bilingual children who had one parent born in the UK and one not, with monolingual children who had two UK-born parents. Joanna’s comparisons found that learning two languages did not affect various abilities of those under six years old.

Joanna used her grant to arrange a variety of workshops where she shared her research with parents and teachers of bilingual children and gained further knowledge of their experiences. She also talked to the Scottish government to share her results in the context of their language policies.

Sharing knowledge

The warm welcome and enthusiasm I have encountered encouraged me to pursue the topic further. I have a sense of need for my research. 

Dr Joanna Clifton-Sprigg

Four discussion workshops were held with different parties involved in each:

  • Parents and teachers of the James Gillespie’s Primary School and the Spanish Saturday Club in Edinburgh
  • Parents and teachers of children attending the Polish Saturday School in Livingston (near Edinburgh)
  • Polish parents living in Edinburgh, a workshop organised in collaboration with the Polish Professionals Forum and the Association for Language Learning Abroad
  • The Minority Language Group from the Scottish Parliament and representatives of Education Scotland

The workshops consisted of Joanna giving a short presentation followed by open discussion with the rest of the participants. Although the workshops were similar in nature, Joanna adapted them to ensure the content and format was suitable for each audience. The format and provision of tea and biscuits helped create a relaxed atmosphere and all participants appeared happy to contribute to discussions.

Discussing bilingualism

Members of the Scottish government were interested in Joanna’s research as it had used their ‘Growing Up in Scotland’ data; they were keen to promote this resource and see it used in different ways. They were also interested to hear about and discuss, Joanna’s research with regard government policies promoting the Gaelic language and foreign languages in primary schools. The workshops provided them an opportunity to express their desires for future research.

Parents and teachers appreciated the opportunity to meet new people and to share their experiences of raising and teaching bilingual children, discussing the challenges and benefits of bilingualism. They found Joanna’s results interesting and useful for planning future activities.

Moving forward

Discussions with people from a variety of different backgrounds really broadened Joanna’s view of the complex practical issues surrounding bilingualism as well as the differing views and needs of different members of society. These discussions have stimulated Joanna to think of new ideas and directions for her research driven by the needs and practice of stakeholders. She hopes that the new contacts she has made with language practitioners outside of the familiar academic environment might become involved in future research work.

Interaction with a new audience with new perspectives and suggestions has given Joanna added impetus for the research topic.

Joanna gained experience of event management and organisational skills, for example in designing and printing her research brief. She also gained confidence in delivering her research. She hopes to continue holding workshops in other areas of the country.